Milwaukee panel tackles dearth of women in management

Kris Martinsek of Milwaukee has money to invest in stocks, money to donate to worthy causes, and money to spend on consumer goods.

But she withholds her cash — or withdraws it — from businesses and investments that lack women on their boards of directors or in top CEO positions.

“I switched my entire investment portfolio to Robert W. Baird, because they had Mary Ellen Stanek (the firm’s managing director and director of asset management) as one of their principals, and I figured I was going to put my money where my mouth is,” said Martinsek, following a Milwaukee Press Club “Behind the Headlines” forum Thursday in Milwaukee.

Participants in the forum — four local executives who were quizzed by three business journalists on the topic “The Business Case for Promoting Women” — readily agreed that it makes sense for businesses to promote women to top executive and board positions, given that women make more than half of Americans’ wealth investment decisions and make some 80 percent of purchasing decisions.

But when asked how to change the reality — that nationally, less than 17 percent of corporate board members are women and that in the Milwaukee area, the percentage drops to around 14 percent — answers were as sparse as males in the audience. About 85 people attended, of which perhaps a half-dozen were male.

The panelists were: Krista Brookman, senior director at Catalyst, a global nonprofit organization focused on expanding opportunities for women and business; Phyllis King, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Jon A. Langenfeld, head of global equities and director of equity research for Robert W. Baird & Co; and Kim Metcalf-Kupres, vice president and chief marketing officer for Johnson Controls.

The journalists were Latoya Dennis of WUWM-FM, Kathleen Gallagher of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Stacy Vogel Davis of the Milwaukee Business Journal.

“We’ve got to know our clients, we’ve got to understand our clients, and in some respects, we’ve got to mirror our clients,” said Langenfeld, the only male on the panel and, ironically, the most outspoken in calling on businesses to change their ways.

The traditional system of identifying certain promising employees for mentoring and advancement while other employees are kept in the dark about opportunities is “archaic and unfriendly,” Langenfeld said.

Too often, men simply choose other men to groom for future top positions, he noted.

In addition, he said, while employees on the way to the top know they need to get noticed for taking on leadership functions — many aren’t privy to which specific functions will actually get the attention of the CEO. For example, being a shining star in the human resources department might not lead to a place in the boardroom at some companies, he said.

Langenfeld said companies need to proactively seek out diverse talent among rising executives, instead of assuming the best and the brightest women and minorities will automatically get promoted. While stopping short of calling for quotas to be set to meet diversity goals, he said Baird has established internal “associate research groups” which focus on various interests, such as eco-friendly concerns, or demographics, such as lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) employees, to give ambitious workers a chance to work on projects and demonstrate leadership.

“It’s very deliberate,” he said of the connection between the newly established “ARGs” and the company’s goals to identify diverse up-and-coming executives.

Metcalf-Kupres’ personal experience matches Langenfeld’s theory. After working at Johnson Controls for years, she tackled a high-visibility role in a major engineering project. “That was a fundamental turning point in my career,” she said. “The last 10 years have had a very different trajectory from the first 10 years that I served the company.”

Metcalf-Kupres focused on the need for women who aspire to top-level posts to demonstrate a willingness to take risks. She said the firm’s experience is that women — especially those with many years of experience and success in one area of the company — are more reluctant than men to take on unfamiliar roles, transfer to a different city or handle global projects overseas.

While Brookman theorized that companies that embrace family-friendly practices such as flexible schedules and generous maternity and paternity leave will better attract and retain more women with executive potential, Metcalf-Kupres warned that such perks don’t erase the need for women to appear as ambitious as their male counterparts.

“You can have flex time on paper, but is there a stigma if you use it?” she asked.

Brookman, whose organization, Catalyst, analyzes corporate trends and tries to help women achieve corporate success, noted that progress has plateaued in the past decade.

She said that although 51 percent of women are in managerial roles, “as we start to unfold and get to the top of that pyramid, we see that only 16.9 percent of corporate board seats are filled by women in the Fortune 500, 14.6 percent of corporate executive officer positions are held by women and in the eye of the triangle, we see that only 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions are held by women.”

“The important thing is, the data hasn’t changed much,” said Brookman. “For a very long time, people thought that this would naturally take care of itself, right? That the best and the brightest would rise to the top — but what the data tells us is without focused and intentional leadership and making women’s advancement a priority, it’s simply not going to happen.”

*Wisconsin statistics lag*

King described how a group of Wisconsin professional women, Milwaukee Women Inc., “found a startling statistic” in 2002, that women represented just 9 percent of corporate board members in Wisconsin’s top 50 publicly held companies. Although that percentage has now increased from 9 percent to 14 percent, King’s view is, “Not big movement, not big gains and relatively unchanged in the past couple of years.”

The percentage of Wisconsin women executives is 11 percent, a figure that has remained mostly unchanged in recent years as well, said King. “Yet when you look at executives, that’s the pipeline for women to advance to board positions,” she said.

“Nationally, we’re looking at 17 percent in terms of boards and 15 percent in terms of senior executives. We are lower in the state of Wisconsin,” said King.

“Why do we focus on women on boards? That’s where the strategic decisions are made,” said King. “That’s where governance is applied and that’s where risk is overseen. That’s where women can make a big difference.”

“There is a strong, compelling business case here (for appointing women to boards,” said King. “Women are responsible for 80 percent of the decisions that are made in consumer purchases. But if you look at board composition, it does not at all equate. The current pace of change is not good enough.”

Still, when pressed by the journalists for concrete solutions, the panel mostly fell silent.

“It’s not easy — if it were, we wouldn’t be having this panel discussion,” said Langenfeld. He said that while his firm has tried to implement some flexibility for women with families, “there are some jobs you can’t change. Our investment bankers, as they become more senior, are on the road 70, maybe 80 percent of the time,” he said. “That’s a really hard thing to change, when they’re supposed to be on call 24-7. You can’t change that dynamic.”

In the meantime, women like Martinsek, who owns her own business, Martinsek Associates, told the panel that it’s time shareholders work harder to force the issue from the outside.

A decade ago, Martinsek noticed that Green Bay-based Associated Banc Corp, where she owned stock, lacked diversity among its board of directors.

“When I got my annual report, I wrote a letter to the shareholder representative on the board, basically saying, ‘you have all white males on the board members, you have all white male executives, as a woman who is a shareholder in your firm, I’m curious: More than 50 percent of your employees are women, more than 50 percent of your customers are women, what are your plans to diversifying your board?’ “said Martinsek.

“They didn’t answer, she said.

After sending a second letter and then speaking up on the matter at the stockholders’ annual meeting, the bank’s newly appointed CEO moved to add women to the board.

But they’d already lost Martinsek’s business.

Mary Van de Kamp Nohl, a former reporter for Milwaukee Magazine, agrees.

“When I get a proxy statement frrm a company, if there are no women on the board, no women in the “c” suite, they’re getting no votes from me. I will tell them that when they call me or I will call their proxy number and tell them why,” Van de Kamp Nohl told WisBusiness afterward. “I’m in that 52 percent of the women who are managing the money. That’s my full-time job now. I handle our investments.”

— By Kay Nolan